If people who check your identity, scan your carry-ons, seize your water bottles and pat you down can generate smiles on Instagram, so can you.
TSA is the ultimate purveyor of user-generated content – from loaded guns and lethal knives to angelic kids and lovable dogs. What TSA sees and sometimes confiscates is eye-popping fun, which the federal agency shares on its popular Instagram account.
Hard to imagine a federal agency, especially one often under siege from air travelers and politicians, could have such an infectious sense of humor. But it is easy to recognize TSA uses quirky pictures on its Instagram account as part of its overall visual communications strategy.
David Johnston is TSA’s social media strategist who helps travelers literally “get the picture” of what they can and cannot take aboard a commercial airliner at a US airport. Pictures are the best means to convey a lot of information quickly to people who speak different languages and have varying degrees of experience on air travel. Pictures also can be a powerfully passive way to explain controversial or sensitive regulations and avoid ugly confrontations.
TSA’s visual communications strategy could be a case study for organizations and communicators that need to “speak” in the digital age. Infographics and videos show what can be taken on board in carry-ons and provide excellent shareable content for social media. Informative, well-illustrated blog posts provide timely information, such as how to pack presents for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa.
Instagram posts aim to reach younger eyeballs and poke light-hearted fun at some of the stuff TSA confiscates, like fireworks and smartphones with built-in knives.
For an agency whose purpose is to be intrusive in the name of safety, visual communications are icebreakers. They subtly and successfully make TSA seem helpful – and friendly, even as TSA personnel check out your liquid containers and scrutinize your iPad for explosives.
TSA rarely has “good” news to tell or a two-for-one sale to promote. All it can do is strive to make airport security checks less of a necessary nuisance. This should be a light-bulb moment for companies, nonprofits and other public agencies that are in the necessary nuisance business. Visual aids can help.
Visual communications can deliver basic information quickly and often complex information simply. They can cut across cultural, language and age barriers. They can replace bulky text and substitute for lengthy verbal explanations. They can inform with some style and a lighter touch.
Protecting the safety of airline passengers is serious business and, for travelers, a frustration. TSA shows some moxie by relying heavily on visual communications to balance the two while proactively communicating with people who it will check, scan and pat down.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.